Updated: Mar 10, 2021
In College Baseball Nation’s Touching the Bases, we’ll take a periodic look at college baseball through a draft-inspired lens. We’ll dissect the recent performances of the nation’s best players in the run up to the July draft and provide information on whose stock is rising or falling. And we’ll also give a rundown on what’s happening with some of the nation’s premier high school players and how they’ll impact the draft.
After an 11-month hiatus, college baseball finally returned this weekend, and fans were not disappointed. What we witnessed was perhaps the deepest collection of draft-eligible arms the college game has ever seen, as well as the makings of a historically talented freshman class. It was also evident that pitchers are far ahead of hitters. While this is usually the case so early in the spring, it’s certainly possible that the tremendous pitching depth across college baseball will stifle offensive production for the remainder of the season.
Arms, Arms, and more Arms
Kansas State’s Jordan Wicks and Wake Forest’s Ryan Cusick started the weekend off with impressive pitching performances Friday afternoon. The southpaw Wicks, who just missed a spot on CBN’s All-America squads, was dominant for seven shutout innings, striking out 10 and allowing just three hits with two BBs. His fastball flashed 94 MPH and he used his fading changeup to keep the opposing Oregon State batters off balance. Wicks and Michigan’s Steven Hajjar, who was idle this weekend, will likely be neck-and-neck this season in the battle for college baseball’s best lefthander, with both expected to be drafted in the second half of the 1st round.
Cusick, a 6-06/225 righty from Wake Forest, used fear and intimidation to get the job done against Northeastern. Though he got touched for three runs in the sixth inning, he was up to 99 MPH with his heater and demonstrated a low-80’s hammer curve. Most importantly, Cusick walked just two batters in six innings (versus nine punchouts)—a positive sign for a guy who has issued 47 free passes in 88 collegiate innings. Cusick’s velocity and top-shelf metrics have catapulted him into the 1st round conversation.
At the onset of Texas’ game against Mississippi State on Friday night, Longhorns ace and CBN 1st Team All-American Ty Madden looked like he would join in on the fun. In the 1st inning, the big righty struck out the side, throwing eight heaters at 97 MPH, an 89 MPH cutter, and several mid-80’s sliders. But Mississippi State hitters touched him up later in the game, leading to an earlier-than-expected exit. Still, it’s abundantly clear that Madden’s raw stuff is among the best in the nation.
Lefthander Andrew Abbott has been a reliever virtually his entire career at Virginia yet begins 2021 as the Cavaliers’ Friday night starter. As evidenced by a K-rate north of 13.5 in almost 110 IP heading in to this year, Abbott attacks hitters with swing-and-miss stuff, including a sweeping curveball that, according to former Prospects365 writer Mason McRae, reaches 2650 RPM. Abbott continued his mound mastery in prime time with nine Ks and two walks in 5.2 shutout innings against Connecticut. He also yielded just one hit. Because he’s not overly physical at 6-00/180 and his fastball barely scrapes the low 90’s, Abbott likely won’t go off the board until Round 2.
Florida’s Tommy Mace would have been selected in the top 10 rounds out of high school and in the top two rounds last year but both times did not sign and opted to bet on himself. Mace may have been onto something as he’s lining himself up to be a mid or late first rounder in July. Facing Miami on Friday night, Mace threw five innings of 1-run ball with eight strikeouts. The 6-06/220 Floridian featured a diversified repertoire—93-96 MPH heater, sharp curveball, and cutter.
LSU’s Jaden Hill had it all working on Saturday against Air Force. He repeatedly spotted 95-98 MPH gas on the corners then exhibited a toxic slider and 82-83 MPH fading changeup in tossing four scoreless innings. Hill whiffed five and didn’t walk a batter. The key for the 6-04/240 righthander this spring will be to prove his durability after throwing only 21.2 IP in 2019-20. If Hill remains healthy and continues to deal, he could emerge as a top 10 selection.
Richard Fitts’ draft stock had lots of juice this fall, and it’s easy to see why—he regularly throws mid-90’s gas with a 2500 RPM spin rate and a much-improved slider. Fitts showcased this power arsenal on Saturday against Presbyterian with five innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts and just two walks.
Lookout Landing’s Joe Doyle let the world know about Miami (OH) righthander Sam Bachman in this informative article. Bachman exhibited all the attributes Doyle discussed in his start Saturday against Jacksonville, including a fastball that sat 94-96 MPH and an effective slider and changeup. Bachman is another righthander with plenty of helium and could hear his name called in the middle of the 1st round.
No 2021 draft-eligible pitcher did more to boost his draft stock this weekend than Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund. Hoglund, who was drafted by the Pirates in the 1st round out of high school, always had excellent command; however, the 6-05/220 righthander suddenly added a couple ticks to his heater and was firing 95-96 MPH at the start of Sunday’s game against Texas Tech. His slider, his signature pitch, was also livelier than it had been previously. Although Hoglund eventually settled into the low 90’s in later innings, the elevated velocity on his heater gives him an entirely new dimension and could catapult him into the top half of the 1st round.
Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker is the best-known collegian in 2021 and showed why in the first game of the Commodores’ Monday double header versus Wright State. Rocker filled the strike zone with an array of mid-90’s cheddar, burgeoning cutters, and sliders that grade out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He struck out eight in just four shutout innings; however, inconsistent fastball command, which some believe is the chink in his otherwise impenetrable armor, led to three walks.
Jack Leiter’s start in the second game of Vandy’s double dip on Monday captured the attention of half the Western Hemisphere and for good reason. The fireballing righty emasculated the Wright State lineup with 95-98 MPH molten lava and a smorgasbord of venomous sliders, cutters, and curve balls. As good as Rocker looked, Leiter looked even better and kindled some serious 1-01 talk. When asked if Mike Mussina and Roy Oswalt would serve as suitable comps for Leiter, an evaluator merely said, “Those two wish they had an arm like that when they were 21.” Enough said.
Struggling ’21 Bats
As we pointed out in the introduction, some of the premier 2021 draft eligible hitters had a rocky first weekend. This was especially true for Florida CF Jud Fabian and 3B Alex Binelas, who combined to go 3-24 with 13 Ks against just four BBs and no extra base hits. Fabian’s Achilles Heel is his swing-and-miss tendencies, so it will be interesting to see how difficult it is for him to turn the ship around. Binelas is still trying to shake off the rust from essentially not playing in twenty months after sustaining a broken hamate during last year’s opening weekend.
Arkansas’ Christian Franklin also had a tough opening weekend. The speedy CF was 1-12 with five strikeouts.
Other ‘21 Tidbits
If Hoglund enhanced his draft value the most on the pitching front, then Louisville C Henry Davis was the position player that raised the most eyebrows. The 6-02/210 backstop showed excellence on both sides of the ball this weekend against Bellarmine. Davis went 4-10 with a homerun, two BBs, and didn’t strike out. On defense, he threw out a runner trying to steal, didn’t permit a passed ball and looked stellar in guiding his pitchers. Davis has always been a strong receiver, and if he proves his .372/.481/.698 start to last season was no fluke he may surpass Miami’s Adrian Del Castillo as the class’ top catcher and emerge as a top 10 pick.
Speaking of Del Castillo, he’ll be under a lot of pressure to showcase his lethal bat, because his potential inability to stay behind the plate long-term is a cause for concern among scouts. As one evaluator remarked, “If clubs increasingly view Del Castillo as a guy who can’t stick behind the dish, he becomes a 5-10 right-handed 1B who’s never played the position. Then, if his bat is not quite as advertised, he’ll slide.” That said, Del Castillo had a decent weekend, including a ringing double on Sunday against tough Florida southpaw Hunter Barco.
Florida’s Nathan Hickey is another catcher whose ability to stay behind the plate is in doubt, but no one is questioning his hitting. The 6-00/210 left-handed hitter, who has been compared to Kyle Schwarber, put on a show against Miami’s flock of high upside arms, going 7-13 with two moonshots. Hickey is currently projected to be a Day Two pick and could move up if this onslaught continues.
UCLA’s Matt McLain is a possible top 10 pick, and his draft status will be highly correlated with his ability to stick at SS. He did make two errors over the weekend against San Francisco, though his offense looked as sound as ever as he went 5-11 with his first dinger on Sunday. He also barreled a couple balls on Saturday and demonstrated above average speed and baserunning acumen throughout the weekend.
Slugging South Alabama OF Ethan Wilson was idle due to a sprained ankle and is expected to return to action next weekend.
‘22 Class Notes
As we’ve mentioned before on our podcasts and in various articles, the 2022 draft class looks like it could be a bonanza with a mix of outstanding offensive talent and some high-octane arms. Any conversation on the 2022 class must begin with Connor Prielipp. Alabama’s precocious southpaw began his college career last year with a 21-inning scoreless stretch and extended that streak by another five frames on Friday. The Wisconsin native revealed a 94-95 MPH fastball with plenty of movement, which he complemented with a mid-80’s biting slider. In a draft class that is loaded with talented lefties, Prielipp currently sits in the pole position.
Although Arkansas’ Payton Pallette didn’t have the notoriety of Prielipp heading into this season, he may emerge as Prielipp’s righthanded foil in the draft class. Pallette, whose 6-01/175 frame, pitching style, and live arm have evoked comparisons to Walker Buehler (including from his own coach), showcased mid-90’s cheese, a devastating curveball, and high-80’s changeup in disposing of Texas on Sunday night.
Virginia CF Chris Newell, one of the most dynamic players in next year’s draft class, had a rough first series against Connecticut. Batting in the lower third of the order, Newell went 1-11 and struck out six times without drawing any walks. Newell put up a fantastic .407/.545/.729 slash line in 2020; however, he did have a 27% K-rate, so his ability to put the bat on the ball will be something to watch going forward.
Another interesting development in Charlottesville has been the omission of Nate Savino from the weekend rotation to start the season. Savino was a prized recruit who matriculated early and performed well last spring. So far, there has been no comment on the move from the Cavaliers’ coaching staff.